Earlier this week, Amnesty International’s Bangalore unit was booked on sedition charges for an event they organised highlighting human rights abuses in Kashmir. The event conducted at Bengaluru’s United Theological College focused on the families of those who had lost their lives to alleged abuses by Indian security forces. But it reportedly ended in heated arguments and pro-azaadi slogans.
A case was filed against the advocacy group after members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad complained that the event was “anti-national” because it raised questions about the Indian Army’s conduct. The NGO has denied the charges of sedition. There are two elements to the above case.
One is the anachronism of the sedition law and the potential it possesses to stifle dissent. The second relates to Amnesty International’s alleged inconsistencies in dealing with issues related to human rights in India and abroad. Questions over its inconsistencies were raised by Gita Sahgal, the former head of Amnesty International’s gender unit. Although Sahgal condemned the sedition changes, she also slammed the NGO for its continuing support to Kashmiri militant groups.
In a statement released earlier this week, Amnesty International India claimed that none of its employees had shouted any anti-India slogan at the event. In response, Sahgal slammed the NGO, saying “it’s typical of Amnesty to claim to be neutral on ‘the right to self-determination’ while giving more space to people who give it political support”. She went on to allege that the NGO had failed to examine the “full range of violations” by both the Indian security forces and militant groups.
“They have never looked at cross-border infiltration or the support to Kashmiri jihadi groups in Britain, including by their hero Moazzam Begg, whose bookshop published jihadi literature by a man called Dhiren Barot, glorifying the Kashmir jihad in the 90s as a means of establishing an Islamic state,” Sahgal revealed to a leading national daily. These allegations are rather damaging for a human rights advocacy group. At one level, the group has been accused of being economical with the truth about Kashmir. But on another level, gross inconsistencies by liberal sections of civil society undermine their own cause for the better protection of human rights in conflict zones. To the uninitiated, Sahgal is the grand niece of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Sahgal’s association with Amnesty International came to an end in 2010, after she accused it of “ideological bankruptcy” over its ties with Islamist terror groups.
The NGO suspended the human rights advocate in 2010 after she said: “To be appearing on platforms with Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender is a gross error of judgment.” This statement was made in reference to Amnesty’s dealings with Cage, a controversial Islamist advocacy group headed by Moazzam Beg, one of Britain’s most vocal supporters of the Taliban and a former Guantanamo Bay detainee.
The accusations do not end there. Last year, The Times, a British daily national newspaper, exposed how one of its employees continued to defend Amnesty’s ties with groups and NGOs that advocate Sharia law and other forms of Islamic extremist thought.
As argued in these columns, the sedition law is anachronistic. In a democratic republic like India, it is deeply unfortunate that our governments still use the same British-era sedition law to stifle free speech. Under Section 124(A) of the Indian Penal Code, a person can be charged with sedition if his speech or act “attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government”. The sedition law was first promulgated by the British Raj in an obvious bid to stifle free speech and expression. Many freedom fighters during the anti-colonial struggle were jailed under the sedition law, including Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi.
In response to being charged under Section 124(A), Gandhi once told a British judge that “sedition was the highest moral duty of a citizen”. Since the law is about “disaffection against the state”, Gandhi said that “affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law”. Due to its extremely wide ambit, the law is still often used by the police as a tool to silence dissidents. Fortunately, convictions under the sedition law are rare because of a caveat added by the Supreme Court to the sedition law in a 1962 judgment.
The apex court made it abundantly clear that seditious speech and expression could be punished only if the speech is accompanied by “violence” or leads to a direct “incitement” to “violence”. In a subsequent judgment, the apex court went one step further and unambiguously stated that only speech that amounts to “incitement to imminent lawless action” can be criminalised. Merely making calls for a violent revolution against the State cannot amount to sedition unless it can be proven that there is an incitement to “imminent” violence. More importantly, in its popular judgment on Section 66 of the IT Act in 2015, the apex court makes a clear distinction between “advocacy” and “incitement”, stating that only the latter can be punished as per law.